Toronto
3 min

Working the ex factor

There are a lot of myths surrounding gay life. Myths like the idea that we’re all tasteful, witty and smart or the one that says we’re all having hot, varied sex every night of the week. But of all the self-serving myths that surround us, and which we actively encourage, one of the most hokey has to be the idea that we always remain friends with our exes.

We don’t, of course. Surveying my own crowded field of exes, I realize (sometimes with relief, sometimes with regret) that I’m not talking to most of them.

People drift apart for all kinds of reasons, not just because of post-breakup pain. They develop different interests, different tastes, even different orientations. In the old days, and perhaps even today in traditional cultures, men often had affairs and then left to get married to women. If you read Christopher Isherwood’s biography it’s quite amazing how many of his lovers from the 1930s and 1940s later went straight. We may still talk to exes like that but it’s as if from across a great divide.

Even with the best will in the world it’s not easy to convert lovers to friends. We won’t go into all the problems of short-term exes, like finding yourself at a party talking to someone and wondering why there is a certain edge to the conversation until you remember that the two of you slept together long ago and it didn’t go well. That’s another story.

We’re talking about situations where the relationship was long enough to develop its own history, culture and reality. Relationships that intense don’t willingly fade into the background and sometimes you have to give them a good kick and a lot of distance before they’ll settle into “just friends.”

Years ago an ex and I tried to remain friends but we kept having sex and then, in a major fit of denial, tried to pretend it was just casual. Of course it all blew up and I ended up talking to one of those nice professionals who think 45 minutes is an hour. (“We have to end now but we’ll come back to this next week.”)

It seemed like a swell idea at the time, especially when we were having the sex we weren’t supposed to be having but, in retrospect, it caused more pain than any clean breakup could have. If you really want to remain friends take my advice: skip the legendary “sex with the ex” and allow yourself (and your emotions) some time to cool off. It’s not going to work otherwise. Not unless you’re really good at setting boundaries. Like Ironman good.

Once you’ve been intimate with someone you can’t ever go back and that can be both good and bad. Good in that it’s a spur to friendship. Bad in that it complicates life. As a friend’s therapist once remarked, we react more intensely to people with whom we’ve been intimate. It’s a habit that may weaken but never quite dies.

You can see at least some of that dynamic at work in the groundbreaking 1986 film Parting Glances where the hero is torn between his ex and his current boyfriend. He may not be sleeping with the ex but the tension is still there.

I don’t know enough about the lesbian scene to comment but I’m guessing the same dynamic operates there. The best friend of the heroine in the new lesbian dramedy Exes and Ohs (from the US channel Logo) is, of course, also her ex. A 2004 book on lesbian exes is subtitled The Really Long-term Relationships.

Yet for all the problems involved in repurposing exes, it’s a practice of which we can be justifiably proud. The emotional equivalent of recycling, it allows you to get a little more mileage out of a worn but still viable (at some level) relationship.

Sometimes we can be a bit smug about it, as though we, unlike every other human being on the planet, were somehow above jealousy, petty rivalries and hurt feelings. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. But it is true, I think, that gays are more likely than straights to turn exes into friends, and it adds a depth and a texture to gay social life that’s noticeably lacking elsewhere, producing friends who are somewhere between casual and amorously intimate. Some of my closest friends are exes of one sort of another and they add immeasurably to my life.

Having so many exes at play is like being part of a large family where there are so many cousins you can’t remember the exact degree of relationship. First cousin? Second cousin? Second cousin once removed? The exact degree of intimacy is sometimes hard to ascertain but it’s comforting all the same.